Four Ways to Support Your Tomato Plants
Without support, tomatoes grow as vines snaking along the ground. They’ll grow just fine, but leaves and fruit will touch the soil, making them wet and susceptible to disease. This post will discuss a few common methods for supporting tomatoes.
Cages are a wire grid encircling a tomato plant, with a spacing between wires of 6 to 10 inches. Choose a height consistent with the plants: shorter for determinate plants, taller for indeterminate. Some cages are conical, with the wider end at the top. Others are square or cylindrical. Regardless, the bottoms should have wires extending downwards for several inches, for securing to the soil. Some gardeners stake cages to the ground.
Place cages while plants are small. As the plants grow, it’s not necessary to attach them to the cages. The leaves will grow out through the gaps between the wires, holding the plants upright. Prune the plants, though, to keep their interiors open, dry, and disease-free.
Cages can be purchased at garden centers, or made from wire fencing, e.g. livestock panels or concrete reinforcing mesh. Choose cages or fencing with sturdy wire, and with holes large enough for easy pruning and harvesting.
- Unnecessary to tie up plants
- Need lots of storage space
- Without pruning, plant interiors will be crowded, wet, and disease-prone
Stakes are simple and versatile. They should be at least 5 feet tall, more for indeterminate plants. Stakes can be sturdy plastic, wood, or metal. Fence posts make good stakes. ½” rebar, cut to the desired length, is another great option.
Drive stakes at least 12 inches deep. Better yet, set stakes in the same holes as the seedlings when transplanting. This will avoid damaging roots when driving stakes later, near an established plant. Put the stakes 2 inches from the plants’ bases.
Tie plants to stakes with strips of fabric, stretchy garden tape, or specialized tomato clips. Leave an inch between the plant and the stake, so the plant will have room to grow. Start tying plants when they’re a foot high, adding a new tie every 12 inches. When plants reach the tops of the stakes, cut off their growing ends.
For plants with multiple stalks, attach the extra stalks to their own stakes a foot away from the first stake. Tying the extra stalks to the original stake will crowd the plant, leaving it damp and susceptible to disease.
- Simple, inexpensive
- Easy storage
- Fruit and suckers are easy to access
- Repeated pruning and tying
- Stakes can spread soil-borne diseases; wash at season’s end
This is a great method for large numbers of plants. Begin by placing stakes at the ends of a row, and then after every two plants down the row (see picture). Use stakes with a height appropriate for the plants.
Tie one end of a roll of twine to the first stake, a foot off the ground. Run the twine down one side of the first two plants and loop it around the next stake, keeping the twine taut. Continue down the row, looping around each stake. At the last stake, reverse directions and pass the twine down the other side of the row, again looping the twine around each stake. Finally, cut the twine and tie the end around the first stake. Repeat every 12 inches up the stakes as the plants grow.
Use sturdy twine: 3- or 6-ply, with a 3 mm diameter. (#60 and #72 twine also have the right diameter.) Natural fiber twine will degrade, but if it’s thick it’ll last the season. UV-stabilized polypropylene twine is another good option. It’s not biodegradable, but it can be re-used. Polypropylene twine also won’t stretch as much as natural fiber twine.
- Easy storage
- Repeated effort to secure plants as they grow
- Plants must be pruned to stay within the twine
This is another way to handle a lot of plants. Place strong stakes, e.g. fence posts, at either end of a row. If a row is longer than 8 feet, put one or more stakes in the middle.
Then attach one or more pieces of 10-foot electrical conduit to the tops of the stakes, so that the conduit runs from one end of the row to the other (see picture). Attach by lashing the conduit to the stakes with twine. Or attach with two “zip-ties,” crossing diagonally and looping around both post and conduit. (Variations of this design include using rope or wire cable instead of conduit, or building open-sided structures from PVC or metal pipe.)
Finally, for each plant in the row, tie a piece of twine to the conduit. Run the twine down to ground level and make a loose loop around the plant’s base. As the plants grow, attach to the twine using tomato clips or loops of fabric. Prune plants to have one stem.
- Flexible and efficient (once the support system is built)
- Breaks down for easy storage
- Requires extra gear, e.g. conduit
- A hassle to assemble and disassemble
- Repeated attention for pruning and tying
There’s no single best way to support tomatoes. But no matter how you do it, use sturdy, long-lasting materials for your support system. Finally, time spent pruning, suckering, and attaching tomatoes to their supports will be rewarded with healthy plants and a plentiful harvest.
(Adapted from an article by Piedmont Master Gardener Chris Stroupe in our Garden Shed newsletter)
References and further reading
Epic Tomatoes (2015, Craig LeHoullier)
3 options for supporting tomato vines North Dakota State University
The stake and weave training system for training tomatoes in the home garden New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station
Stake your tomatoes Penn State Extension
Staking and pruning tomatoes in the home garden University of Georgia Extension
Three ways to trellis tomatoes University of Minnesota Extension
Tomato staking techniques University of California Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA
Yard and garden: Staking tomatoes Iowa State University Extension and Outreach